Government must step up support for vital local journalism as more readers move online
One of the strengths of select committees is their ability to shine a light on some aspects of life which are wrongly neglected.
For us on the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee, local journalism and its seemingly inexorable decline is one of those. We think that local journalism is vital for democracy, in the same way that national journalism is vital for the scrutiny of Parliament.
The old way of holding local government to account was through the local press. But more than 320 local papers closed between 2009 and 2019, and those that survived operate with diminished resources and fewer journalists. These days people get their local news online, just as they do with national news. Inevitably the local papers had relatively small readerships so shifting to digital models based on online advertising or subscriptions is difficult.
We look forward to the Media Bill, where we hope to see the expansion of the Community Radio Fund
According to Ofcom, television is still the most used source of news for adults in the United Kingdom, at 79 per cent. But the internet is now close behind on 73 per cent, with half using social media. Just under a third use print newspapers. This shift online has had serious consequences for local media. The CEO of the News Media Association told the select committee that for publishers a print reader is worth about eight times a digital reader.
There have been a number of responses to this crisis. Some have founded community-based operations which produce online content all the time and occasional print publications. The BBC has responded by moving its local content online, which of course makes life more difficult for commercial providers of local news, but also by setting up the Local News Partnership, funded by the BBC but providing material and journalists who also serve commercial operations.
The government’s response was to set up a review under Dame Frances Cairncross to examine the sustainability of high-quality journalism in the UK. This review made nine recommendations, including an innovation fund focused on improving the supply of public interest news, expanding the BBC’s partnership with local publishers, and a new code of conduct to rebalance the key relationship between the big online platforms and the publishers. This is designed to avoid the big platforms simply creaming off all the profits.
The committee itself has made a number of recommendations designed to stabilise the market and allow it to continue to fulfil its important function. We thought that the BBC’s Local Democracy Reporter Service should be protected, and we encouraged the BBC to explore ways of widening the service.
We thought the government’s response to the Cairncross Review, which was to set up the Future News Pilot Fund, was welcome but not substantial enough to make a significant difference. The government should build on this pilot and create a long-term public interest news fund.
We also recommended that statutory notices, which are a significant source of revenue for local publishers, need to be protected. Specifically we think that the rules covering these notices and their placement in local papers should be reviewed, to ensure the revenue streams continue.
As for the platforms and their huge influence on the sustainability of local journalism, we want the new digital markets regime the government has promised to provide clear and explicit provisions to ensure smaller publishers are fairly paid. A failure on this front would be a real blow to the future of the sector.
We also look forward to the Media Bill, where we hope to see the expansion of the Community Radio Fund. We all must recognise that the way people receive their local news has changed, and will continue to change, but the vital importance of accurate and impartial local news will never change.
Damian Green, Conservative MP for Ashford and acting chair of the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee.
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